The Russian Imperial Stout: a Jet-Black, Lovable, Rabid Beast
Mar 19, 2015
For lovers of beer and history, the Russian Imperial Stout is about as awesome as it gets. And it doesn’t matter whether ‘imperial’ signifies opulent royalty, massive empires, or strong beer, for all of those things are entwined within the narrative of the Russian Imperial Stout. It represents both modernity and innovation and yet is also steeped in tradition and, excitingly, boats. Is there any other beer that can claim a connection to both Rasputin and New Zealand? Unlikely.
Any beer titles with the words ‘stout’ or ‘imperial’ can be a little etymologically awkward. Stouts were more or less synonymous with porters until relatively recently, as the modern brewing world has sought to establish strict delineations between one beer category and another. During the 18th century, when the Russian Imperial Stout’s history starts gaining some substance, strong porters were occasionally known as stout porters. Although the term, ‘Stout’ gained some momentum through the 19th century, it was still considered a type of porter through most of its history.
Similarly, the term, ‘Imperial’ carries some confusion. Some believe that it originally signified the Russian imperial court. This is for good reason, considering Catherine the Great’s obsession with the stronger, stouter porter resulting in importing a substantial amount of stout porter by the end of the 18th century. In Russia, it was widely believed in the late 1700s and early 1800s that porter brewed in England with water from the Thames was superior to that which was brewed more locally. According to this Ingredient Driven blog and other similar sources, this trend may have started with Peter the Great around the turn of the 18th century during his stint in England. He was essentially travelling through Europe to gain a deeper knowledge of imperial and maritime strategies but in the process also gained a love of British beer. Was it a proto-porter? Perhaps, but the important part of this story is that Russia was introduced to the delights of British beer. ‘Imperial’ might also denote the idea that strong stout porters were in fact designed, or at least well suited, for export. Their strong ABV and ample hop content enabled them to withstand rough conditions – such as excessively warm or cold temperatures, long durations, and turbulent seas – that accompanied long-distance travel. To exemplify the point, there are records of British porters being exported as far as New Zealand in the 1880s. In this and every sense, stout porters were truly an imperial beer. Either way, by the mid-19th century, brewers and advertisers occasionally tacked on the term, ‘imperial’ to their biggest beers: stouts, porters, or otherwise, as revealed by sources cited in this Zythophile article.
Whether or not a discreet terminology existed for the Russian Imperial Stout during the 19th century, there seemed to be at least a discreet sense of the beer that fulfilled that roll. With the hostile tensions leading to and following from the Crimean War, it is unlikely that the British would happily attach the word, ‘Russian’ onto anything so distinctly British. Nevertheless, the demand in Russia for British stout porters was strong enough that this type of beer was exempted from the trade embargo that spawned between the two imperial entities. All of this hype gives credence to the legend that the notorious Rasputin was especially fond of the black libation long favored by the czarist court.
Anyone that has had some experience with tasting Russian Imperial Stout beers would understand that all of this hype is deserved. While there are abundant flavor possibilities within the Russian Imperial Stout category, these beers tend to have an intense roasted background of a similar nature to Baltic Porters. They are typically very full-bodied and definitively robust. Unlike Baltic Porters, however, Russian Imperial Stouts can exhibit burnt-like qualities, bitter hop and toasty flavors that range from mild to extreme, and malty characters that range from bready to chocolate to caramel. In this sense, they have the capacity for an unimpeded complexity reminiscent of barley wines.
In essence, the Russian Imperial Stout is a destination brew for the Dark Beer Specialist.
Duck-Rabbit’s Rabid Duck Russian Imperial Stout accentuates the roasted, espresso, and dark-chocolate flavors of the malt. While hops oftentimes balance against the malty character of a beer, the bittering hops in this beer lift these dark malty notes up onto pedestals, where – after just one sip – you know they belong. The Rabid Duck is also a rich aromatic experience with earthy and chocolaty scents in the fore with something slightly brandy-like in the background. Underlying the bitter roasted experience, a light sweetness lingers in a way that plays with a subtle alcohol warmth and almost oily viscosity. All of these aspects combine to form a formidable, jet-black beast of a beer but with a lovable personality that keeps you coming back for more.
This blog refers to the following sources:
Kemp, Florian. "Imperial Stout." All About Beer Magazine (26)1.. 1 Mar 2005.
Cornell, Martyn. "Imperial Stout - Russian or Irish?" Zythophile.. 26 Jun 2011.
Beer Judge Certification Program, Inc. "Category 13 - Stout." 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines.. 2015.
Bertram. "ORIGIN STORY: RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT." Ingredient Driven.. 20 Mar 2015.